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Monday, March 17, 2014

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $25.99

[Added note: I forgot to mention when I originally posted my review, that How the Light Gets In has been nominated for this year's Edgar Award for Best Novel.]

How the Light Gets In tidies up some of the dangling storylines from earlier books, and what a story it is. Canadian Louise Penny balances the coziness of tiny Three Pines, her fictional hidden village, situated just south of Montreal, with something big that has been coming down the pike for several books in her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec.

In this, Penny’s ninth Gamache book, the chief inspector feels himself buffeted from all sides in the Sûreté. It is no secret at this point that his superior, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, wants him gone, departed, deleted, amscrayed. Gamache’s department has been gutted, his superbly trained detectives, once loyal to him, have been reassigned to many other departments. His favorite — and his daughter’s favorite, too — Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, once his right arm, now hates Gamache, blames Gamache for deserting him after a police raid went kablooey and he was injured. Into this intrigue comes a puzzler, again courtesy of the not-so-sleepy town of Three Pines. Once again, Gamache makes his way there to visit his village friends Gabri, Olivier, Clara, Myrna, and the irascible Ruth.

Myrna owns a bookstore in Three Pines. As so many of the other residents did, Myrna accidentally happened on the village. It fulfilled a need she had to get away from the chaos of her life as a psychologist, and so she stayed. Now, years later, an old friend has come to visit and she, too, is lulled by the comforting arms of Three Pines, so much so that instead of just a short visit, she wants to come back in a few days for a longer stay at Christmas.

Seventy-seven-year-old Constance Pineault, in just her initial brief visit, has made friends with the gay bistro owners, Gabri and Olivier. She has gone from being homophobic to emotionally adopting them as her sons. More remarkably, she has formed a strange bond with Ruth, a nasty, irreverent, foul-mouthed, nationally-lauded poet, and Ruth’s duck, Rosa. (“[Constance had] arrived a self-sufficient city woman, and now she was covered in snow, sitting on a bench beside a crazy person, and she had a duck on her lap.”)

When Constance doesn’t reappear for her second visit, an uneasy Myrna contacts her friend Gamache. When he investigates, he finds Constance murdered in her home, in the midst of packing for her second visit to Three Pines. Although Constance’s murder is not in Gamache’s purview, a sympathetic detective friend allows him to take over the case.

If you have read no other review of How the Light Gets In, I will not be the one to spoil Constance’s secret. Suffice it to say, it is a remarkable secret. But did it have anything to do with her murder? Handling the case himself allows Gamache to travel back and forth between Montreal and the village. And — ah ha! — Three Pines then also becomes the setting for the denouement of Gamache’s investigation into what devilment Chief Superintendent Francoeur is up to. In the process, Penny reunites other previously introduced characters into the gathering forces.

This is good versus evil. This is the gathering of the light over the dark. How does the light get in?

Penny’s style of writing is poetic, mostly at an easy-going pace, and very personal. Although this book is voiced in the third person, it is easy to imagine that third person. It is not just a writing contrivance; the narrator feels like an unseen person who takes us by the hand into the story.

As Homer laid on attributes whenever he mentioned his characters (“brilliant swift-footed Achilleus,” “flowing-haired Achaians,” “Odysseus the spear-famed”), so Penny bruises Ruth with wry epithets (“demented poet,” “embittered poet,” “crazy poet,” “mad old poet”). Penny’s characters are treasured by her for their eccentricities, which overflow at times.

You will either like Penny for her storytelling style or you won’t. If you don’t, you should know that you are vastly outnumbered by those who do. Penny’s books have been nominated for every major mystery award, and she has won more than her fair share — although she has won her earned share.

If you have never read Penny, this is no place to start. If you don’t want to start at the beginning (Still Life), for goodness’ sake, at least start with Bury Your Dead.

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